Posts Tagged ‘frank zappa


Best New Music of 2014: Frank Zappa – Roxy by Proxy

Hello and welcome to an annual tradition around here: our month-long list of the year’s best new music! If you’re new, I’m Mark, editor of Extended Play and a contributor to websites like Bearded Gentlemen Music. Every day in December, I’ll run a short review of what I think was one of the best albums of 2014. Today: the long-delayed soundtrack to a long-delayed movie!

Earlier this year, the Frank Zappa Estate released the soundtrack to his long-awaited (and even longer-delayed!) movie Roxy and Elsewhere. I guess there kind of already was a soundtrack, since he released a double record with that title a good 40 years ago, but Roxy by Proxy served a kind of dual purpose: it helped raise money to get the film edited and it’s a bunch of previously unreleased music from these shows, presented without edits, overdubs or other tinkering.

If you’re especially curious, I wrote about the album at length for Bearded Gentlemen Music. And rather than repeat myself further, I’ll just leave you with this amazing medley that ends the record. And yes, I think this lineup – Napoleon Murphy Brock, George Duke, Ruth Underwood and etc., – is my favourite Zappa lineup, too!



More Mothers Than Anyone Can Handle

I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for Frank Zappa. I own more of his records than any other artist and even some bootlegs, too. I think it’s safe to say I listen to him more than the average person does, which suits me fine. He made a lot of music, after all.

Anyway, the other day I found a guy online who’d put together a giant Zappa and Mothers of Invention playlist, something like nine hours of music. Then I found another guy who actually made the playlist into a video, which was then posted to YouTube. It’s up there on top. Now before I explain why I listened to it, let’s get into the how and why of the playlist.

During his lifetime, Zappa released over an album a year, with album 62 – The Yellow Shark, a live recording of the Ensemble Modern playing his compositions – coming out just before his death in 1993. Since then, his estate has released dozens of CDs: entire concerts, album demos, finished yet unreleased projects, even a couple of deluxe box sets. But Zappa, who was an ideas guy if nothing else, pitched dozens of ideas to record companies that never panned out. The Zappa Patio has a fun section devoted to these abandoned projects: everything from a RFK audio documentary to a single recorded with Burt Ward.

One of the odder pieces is a box set called The Collected Improvisations of the Mothers of Invention, a 12-record set he started pitching in the late 60s. Actual details are a little sketchy, but it seems certain it would’ve had a bunch of stuff Zappa recorded as a youngin, before joining The Mothers, then a bunch of stuff featuring them. It’s alleged some of it was officially released as Weasels Ripped My Flesh and Burnt Weenie Sandwich, both released in 1970, but who knows for certain. Eventually his pitches for this set got smaller and smaller until he stopped mentioning it altogether. Eventually, he included a bonus record with some odds and ends in box set of remastered old titles.

But the history gets sketchier once you go into the grey world of bootlegs and tape trading: there’s several acetates circulating which people claim came from this unreleased set. Some represent full LPs, others just one side and each represent something that got as far as test pressings. But each generally contains material which did see official release, though. They just saw release on other albums, some of them decades later.

Back to the playlist. A few years back, some kind soul tried to recreate the 12-LP set using a mix of official and unreleased material. More recently, another kind soul – Arghdos – actually made it, splicing it all together into one giant set. It’s an admirable project. This is no way a criticism of their work, but of the music itself and the proposed box set taken as a whole. Think of this as a review for a record that doesn’t exist.

First off, I can see why no record company touched this thing when Zappa was alive. The sense of releasing a 12-LP set for an artist who was never much of a big seller at the time – Weasels peaked at 189 on the charts, Sandwich at 94) –  isn’t there; how many people would’ve bought the entire set?

As the music was officially released, things came out in a more sensible way. Both Weasels and Sandwich work on their own as albums: Weasels for the more experimental/freeform side of the Mothers (think Sexually Aroused Gas Mask, The Eric Dolphy Memorial BBQ or the title cut), Sandwich as a showcase for Zappa’s more tricky compositions (Holiday in Berlin, Little House I Used to Live In). You can play ’em back to back, but they work just fine on their own, too.

On the other hand, The Lost Episodes and Mystery Disc are essentially pre-histories of the Mothers, showing Zappa’s growth as a young musician. They show him growing from a young, experimental composer to a guy leading a rock band and playing some tasty guitar solos. But even with a couple great tunes on each, they’re specifically for hardcore fans; people just casually into him won’t see the appeal of his early doo-wop singles, studio experimentation or of Zappa and Captain Beefheart jamming away in the studio.

Taken as a whole, the 12-LP set poses an ugly dilemma: if you want two of the Mothers best albums, you gotta pay for two or three records of early, unfocused Zappa too. The first record is all about these early years; the Mothers don’t show up in any form until side three. Soon there’s demos from 1965, a making-of for the first Mothers record and a hodgepodge of outtakes and live cuts. This trend continues through most of the set: a handful of great tunes scattered throughout stuff only devoted fans would take interest in.

One example: My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama, one of the best Mothers tunes, is buried deep on side 14, behind a cover of a sea shanty and a skit where Lowell George plays a border guard. If this was a real set, would Zappa have buried a gem so deep into a side? Who knows.

But that’s kind of the problem: on any box set, there’s bound to be some filler. And on one as large a scope as this, with relatively so little a period covered, Zappa would’ve painted himself into a corner. After all, the original Mothers released five albums, two of them double LPs, before Zappa broke up the band in 1969. Altogether that would’ve been just 12 sides: just half of his proposed box set.

Some musicians are good judges of their own work. Neil Young is one, which is why his compilation Decade is still one of the gold standard for a best-of: it doesn’t just have all the cuts you’d want and some new ones for fans who already have those records, but it presents his best material in a way that suggests each of his records are just as good. It works as both a best-of and as a sampler: you’ll buy iy thinking it’s all you’ll need but it just whets your appetite for more.

Zappa? Not so much. This 12-LP set, it just doesn’t satisfy either of those needs. Everything officially released works better in those contexts and what little unreleased material here wouldn’t be worth shelling out for.

But then again, Zappa never displayed much interest in a career spanning set. He only released one best-of in his lifetime (1969’s Mothermania) and compiled a couple more that came out after he died (Have I Offended Someone and Understanding America) – although a few were made without his involvement. He was more concerned with what he currently doing than looking back. As he said in 1986:

After I am dead and gone, there is no need to deal with any of this stuff, because it is not written for future generations, it is not performed for future generations. It is performed for now.

Instead of this set, Zappa released two Mothers odds-and-ends albums and sometime in the early 70s compiled another double record set that sat unreleased until a couple years ago: Finer Moments, which could even be a cousin of the 12-record set! It certainly covers some of the same material. But generally, once the Mothers broke up, Zappa moved on to new projects. It wasn’t until he started looking into his back catalogue, first with The Old Masters box sets and later when compiling assorted live material for CDs, that any new 1965-69 Mothers material saw release. And in those smaller doses, they’re much easier to get into.

Like I said above: I’m glad Arghdos compiled this together into one unit to make a long-rumoured set a reality. It’s something I’ve wondered about for a while. But I’m also glad I didn’t have to buy it, either. I’m a big Zappa guy, but this set would’ve been more Mothers than even I want.


Best Albums of 2013 – #11: Frank Zappa – Road Tapes Venue 2

Running through the end of the month (with a short Christmas break), I’ll be running a post each weekday taking a look at one of my top 20 albums of the year, slowly working my way down to number one. Some I’ve reviewed previously for Bearded Gentlemen Music – I’ll provide links where necessary – and the entire list will eventually end up there, too. But for most of these records, this is the first time I’m writing about them at length, making this a chance to explain my choices in a little greater detail. Last year’s list is no longer online, but for 2011’s Best Canadian Music click here and for 2010’s list, click here.

#11: Frank Zappa – Road Tapes Venue 2: 

It’s been a big few years for Zappa fans: his back catalogue’s in print again and the Zappa Family Trust has issued a bunch of new recordings such as the double album Finer Moments or the live DVD A Token of His Extreme. Even the long-awaited Roxy DVD is supposedly on it’s way, some 40 years after it’s announcement.

But the best was the launch of a new series: Road Tapes. Last year’s volume, a complete Mothers of Invention gig, was fun (see my review here) but this year’s release really raised the ante.

Volume Two is mix from three shows in 1973 in Helsinki, Finland, edited together to form a more-or-less complete concert. It’s interesting because it covers a period of his touring band that’s never really been touched on. Joining him are longtime collaborators like Ruth and Ian Underwood and George Duke, plus some musicians who’d only be around for a couple of tours: bassist Tom Fowler and drummer Ralph Humphrey. And, for one tour only, Zappa was joined by Jean-Luc Ponty.

At this point, Ponty wasn’t quite as famous as he’d become. He was a few years away from joining the Mahavishnu Orchestra and a string of successful solo albums. Still, he’s in top form here, as is the rest of Zappa’s backing band.

They twist and turn through some of Zappa’s quirkier compositions, like RNDZL, Dog Breath and Echidna’s Arf (Of You). On the free-form showcase Further Oblivion, Ponty and Ian Underwood stretch out their solos, showing how talented this band was improvising. But the real standout here is Duke: he takes the vocal lead on Village of the Sun, delivers a wild keyboard solo and then leads the band’s improvisations on Dupree’s Paradise. In some ways, this album can be seen as a tribute to the late Duke, who died earlier this year at 67.

What about Zappa himself? The beauty of this era – ranging from about this tour through 1975’s Bongo Fury – is that he didn’t need to do everything and could spend songs in the background, playing rhythm guitar. And when he does explode into a solo, it’s with a fury: his wild lead guitar on Montana and Big Swifty ranks among the best in his career. With such talented soloists behind him, no wonder he stepped up to the occasion.

It’s starting to look like Road Tapes will be an annual release, with a new one each year. It’s not a quick as pace as what it’s sometimes compared to (The Grateful Dead will release four archival concerts on their Dave’s Picks series in 2014, not counting whatever else Rhino chooses to release) but as long as they’re of this high a quality, they’re worth waiting for.


Mark on Music Classic: Frank Zappa’s Road Tapes, Vol. 1

It’s an exciting time for a Zappa fan. The long-awaited Roxy and Elsewhere movie is on its way; a soundtrack album is too. And, just a couple of weeks ago, The Zappa Family Estate released the second volume of their Road Trips series, capturing the 1973 band over three shows in Finland. It seems as good a time as any for me to re-run this Mark on Music post reviewing the first of the Road Tapes series, capturing the original Mothers of Invention in 1968.

When a band spends a lot of time of the road gigging, especially if they thrive on improvisation, their best music will inevitably be performed on the road, not on their albums. That’s just a fact: some bands were much better live than in the studio.

But not every group could afford to record every show: magnetic tape was expensive and some groups that recorded their shows didn’t always save the tapes: the Grateful Dead used to re-use theirs and Frank Zappa was known for splicing parts out he liked and recording over the rest.

Indeed, Zappa was often dismissive of his bands performances, even with his most talented groups. When he released a live album, it was usually heavily overdubbed in the studio: Roxy and Elsewhere had new vocals, Zappa in New York had new solos and Sheik Yerbouti has more or less re-recorded in the studio. They were nice listens, but not really representative of his live shows. Hence a large bootleg market.

Later, he released a series of live albums, free from overdubs, the six-volume, 12-CD You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore series. But Zappa filled them with tape edits and splices: in the same song, Zappa would cut between performances recorded a decade apart. Some songs contained as many five different performances. They were a nice start, but hardly ideal.

It took years after Zappa’s death for full concerts to start making their way out of his vault. The first was FZ:OZ, a 1976 concert in Sydney, Australia. Later came Wazoo, a show from Boston in 1972 and Buffalo, originally recorded in 1980. A little over a year ago, the estate released Carnegie Hall.

The thing to keep in mind with those releases is their sonic quality: by and large, they were recorded under ideal circumstances: Buffalo on Zappa’s mobile studio, Wazoo by a professional mobile studio. Even Carnegie Hall, which comes from a mono recording, used recorded two, linked tape machines, meaning there wouldn’t by anything lost during a tape flip. These are all good sounding recordings, free from any large defects.

But what about everything else? Zappa used to play gigs all around the US, Canada and Europe. A bunch of these shows were by Zappa himself. After all, these guerrilla recordings (as he once called them) have briefly popped up on live albums. They don’t sound as good, but they have some of his best moments. And they’ve never appeared as a whole. Until now, anyway.

Road Tapes is a new series of concerts being released by the Zappa Estate through their Vaulternative label. They promise to capture what was “impossibly out there on the road in some of the worst audio terrain imaginable.” And the first volume is certainly out there: it’s a live recording of the original Mothers of Invention, live in Vancouver in August 1968.

The concert starts with Zappa talking to the audience and conducting them in the same way he’d conduct his band, through a series of yells, grunts and chants. Soon the band kicks into gear on Help, I’m A Rock, a cut from Zappa’s first album and one of his more experimental numbers. And this segues directly into Transylvania Boogie, a guitar-led number that’d only see release a couple of years later. Let’s recap: in the first 10 minutes of this gig, the band roared from one of the oldest and oddest numbers into full-on rock, barely missing a beat, as we’re treated the first of many guitar rockouts.

It’s more than that, though: Zappa taunts the crowd, asking “Ten dollars to any hippie who’ll cut his hair right here on stage tonight. Do we have any desperate hippies who wanna take it off?” and conducts the band through an Edgard Varese-esque improvisation, titled here as Flopsmash Musics. It’s a showcase for Don Preston and his early synthesizers, which  sound like a pissed-off electric piano.

After a quick run-through of Hungry Freaks, Daddy, Zappa pauses to tune his guitar and introduces the next tune, The Orange County Lumber Truck, as some familiar music plus “some other stuff you won’t recognize.” It’s a whole suite of music long familiar to long-time Zappa fans, consisting of four songs, stretched with some extended soloing from Zappa, Preston and some of the other Mothers, winding down with more fooling around: snorks and Bunk Gardner talking about childhood piano lessons.

This is the kind of thing that longtime fans are here to listen to: the band in full flight, playing it’s asses off and going straight into chaos onstage, with strange noises and talking over improvised music. It’s the sort of thing that couldn’t happen anywhere but on stage, spontaneously. If it was rehearsed and sanitized for a studio recording, it just wouldn’t work.

The second disc picks up right at the end of the first, as the band segues into another number from their first album, Trouble Every Day. And right away you can see why this tape wasn’t used before: there’s a big, ugly tape cut right in the middle of the song. It’s dubbed over with a door slamming (nice touch) and we come back right in the middle of a harmonica solo. It’s a flawed recording, but I’m glad they kept it in.

Next up is the oddly titled Shortly: Suite Exists Of Holiday In Berlin Full Blown, which isn’t really different from Holiday in Berlin as released on Burnt Weeny Sandwich. It’s another tune with a nice Zappa guitar solo, plus some nice playing by Underwood and Gardner, but it’s not quite as revelatory as one might expect. It already sounds fully formed.

From there, it’s two Zappa tunes that hadn’t seen release at this point: Pound for a Brown and Sleeping in a Jar (Uncle Meat wouldn’t come out until next spring, maybe a reason this gig was so heavy on Freak Out-era material). There’s a short guitar section in Pound, but it’s far from the monster solo launching pad it’d later mutate into. Both songs are actually somewhat restrained by Mother standards: no freeform playing, snorking or other zaniness.  Both are a nice reminder how talented this band was.

The zaniness comes up next, with Roy Estrada singing in falsetto on the cheesy doo-wop tune “Oh, In the Sky.” Sample lyrics: “Oh, in the sky / Oh, in the sky / In the sky.” This song closed off the concert, but Zappa brings the band back for an encore, playing an Edgard Varese composition, Octandre, telling the audience “we’re going to ruin it for you,” in typical sardonic fashion.

Of course, they don’t. Varese was a cornerstone of Zappa’s music, arguably the composer who influenced him more than any other. It’s a muscular, menacing-sounding piece. And it’s not all dissimilar from the bombastic intro section of the final song of the concert, King Kong. This song, one of Zappa’s signature songs, is little more than a vehicle for soloing and improvisation and exactly the kind of place where the Mothers flexed their collective muscle: a monster keyboard solo, wild saxophone playing and a thumping rhythm section. It’s performances like this that gave the Mothers their reputation.

So, is the album worth it? Content wise, there are two songs previously unreleased. And it’s a previously unknown recording: it’s never circulated as a bootleg or in the underground trading circles. It’s not often something this old comes out, sounding this good, that’s never seen the light of day before.

But a glance shows it’s not much different, content-wise, from earlier releases like Ahead of the Their Time (recorded just two months later in England) or the YCDTOSA series. Is it better than those albums, even if you already have them?

Surprisingly, yeah, it is. One wouldn’t really guess by listening, but Ahead of Their Time is full of small edits. Songs were moved around from their original order, a track has been omitted, and the rougher edges were smoothed out; there’s no tuning between songs, for instance.

This is part of the appeal of a series like Road Tapes: it’s a look at the full show, not just the parts Zappa thought sounded best. It’s not only as close as you’ll ever get to seeing this band on stage, but it’s full of the little things that make seeing any live act fun: the occasional dropped beat, the odd bum note. The band tuning while Zappa introduces a new song and an appreciative Zappa thanking a grateful audience.

The live albums released in Zappa’s lifetime showed what he wanted his music to sound like under ideal circumstances. There’s no problem with that. But with the new Road Tapes series, you can hear it like it actually happened. It’s essential for any Zappa fan.

Originally published Dec. 12, 2012 at


The Extended Play Halloween Playlist

That’s right, folks it’s Halloween night. And we here at Extended Play think October 31st is the best time to put some cool/scary/Halloween-themed tunes on, turn out the lights and hand out globs of refined sugar to the leaders of tomorrow. Actually, it’s probably the only time.

Anywaym, to help you, we’ve hand-selected some tunes. Some are spooky, others are more cheesy. There’s even a few treats mixed in! Who cares, they all work (for now)! Cue ’em up!

They all look so young here. And dead, too. More after the jump!  Continue reading ‘The Extended Play Halloween Playlist’